Maggie and the Miners

Though he's largely forgotten, Arthur Scargill was an ardent foe of Thatcherism and a champion of militant trade unionism.

National Union of Mineworkers President Arthur Scargill in 1984, amid picketing miners. Don Mcphee / Guardian

Thirty years ago, British miners returned to their pits after a long and punishing strike. Some marched back under their union banners, accompanied by the brass bands that had long been the orchestras of the working class. The miners would be remembered for their resistance, but they went home in defeat.

In stories told since the strike, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Arthur Scargill, is strangely absent. A household name in the seventies and eighties, it was easy to imagine the strike as a personal conflict between Scargill and his nemesis, Margaret Thatcher. Then he was criticized and despised; now he is almost forgotten.

This is largely because of his tense, often bitter, relationships with journalists, who write the first draft of much of our history. Only one biography of Scargill has ever been published, and it is little more than a character assassination.

As a result, while historians have paid attention to the ideas that defined Thatcher, Scargill’s political thinking has been almost entirely neglected. This is a serious mistake. An understanding of the union leader’s approach to socialism helps us to understand the history of Thatcherism, of the strike, and of the British left itself. Because far from simply a response to Thatcherism, Scargill’s socialism was symptomatic of the death of “corporate socialism,” and ought to be recognized as important to the tradition of British industrial syndicalism.

Labour and “Corporate Socialism”

The British left was dominated throughout the twentieth century by the Labour Party, a group almost unique in the history of European leftism. At its foundation, it was not conceived of as a socialist party, but rather as an expression of the interests of the working class and the trade union movement; it was an uncomfortable member of the Second International.

Labour’s federal structure and the opportunity for Labour’s ideology to be constantly redefined and reset depending on the ascendancy of any given faction meant that it was capable of containing various shades of left opinion. It is often forgotten that the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) made repeated attempts to affiliate with Labour, only to give up at last after the Second World War.

But radical currents survived outside Labour. Syndicalism was first introduced to Britain by a wave of mass strikes on the eve of the First World War. Despite being rejected by the majority of trade unions and by the Labour Party, syndicalism forced itself firmly onto the agenda with its violence and militancy. Keir Hardie, one of Labour’s founders, expressed hope that establishment anxieties about syndicalist strikes would force them to make concessions to workers.

Despite Hardie’s optimism, syndicalism posed a fundamental challenge to what was becoming Labour’s dominant ideology, which rejected ideas of class conflict and openly welcomed collaboration with the middle class. Labour’s desperate attempts to make themselves legitimate during this period of Conservative power led them to stress the importance of parliament as a democratic institution, while syndicalists located politics in the factory.

Syndicalism did not reassert itself with the same force in the inter-war years. But nor did it vanish. In 1926, the establishment found itself confronted with the only general strike in British history, a strike which had its origins with the Miners Federation of Great Britain, led at the time by A. J. Cook, a syndicalist and later a hero to Scargill. While the Trades Union Congress (TUC) abandoned the strike after nine days, Cook’s miners lasted much longer.

After victory over Nazi Germany was secured in 1945, the electorate rewarded their aristocratic leader, Winston Churchill, by throwing him out of power and handing a surprise landslide victory to Labour. The new government, led by the mild-mannered, middle-class Clement Attlee, began laying the foundations for a new social-democratic Britain, which combined the liberal welfarism of William Beveridge, the progressive economics of John Maynard Keynes, and the dominant labourist ideology of “corporate socialism.”

This was the system that Thatcher set out to destroy when she came to power in 1979, and doing so meant challenging the power of organized labor. As a result, the miners’ strike is seen only in the context of a short history, and is often depicted as nothing more than a reaction against Thatcherism.

It was, of course, a defensive action in the eyes of much of the population, including many miners. And had it been successful, it is entirely possible that Thatcherism would have come to an end. But Scargill’s place in the British syndicalist tradition would suggest that for him at least, the strike was more than just a defensive one.

The Making of a Militant

Arthur Scargill was born in Worsbrough, Yorkshire in January 1938. His father was a Communist, his mother was deeply religious. Both sides of the family were miners; this was a time and a place where almost every man went down the pit. In 1953, Arthur followed them. Joining the Young Communist League in 1955, he rose through the ranks of the NUM, at that time one of the most important trade unions in the country.

The militant Scargill was very much in a minority during the early days of his NUM career. But his entry into trade union politics coincided with the beginning of a new period of industrial tension. From the late sixties to the mid-seventies, the rise of a militant shop stewards movement across the industry brought about the most significant period of industrial unrest since the syndicalist strikes of the early twentieth century.

The unions themselves were threatened by this militancy; in the late sixties, 95 percent of strikes were unofficial. What was significant about Scargill was that he would take the militancy of the grassroots radicals into the leadership of one of the country’s most important unions.

In 1972, a strike over pay rocketed Scargill straight into the public consciousness, especially after the extraordinary “Battle of Saltley Gate.” Here Scargill led around two thousand pickets and over ten thousand sympathetic demonstrators to shut down the coke depot at Saltley, Birmingham. The media made Scargill a household name, and he returned to Yorkshire to a hero’s welcome.

By the time another strike broke out in 1974, Scargill was president of the Yorkshire NUM. Prime Minister Ted Heath called an election on the theme of “Who runs the country?” and Scargill was key in ensuring that the strike continued throughout. In the end, Heath left office; this defeat would haunt the Conservatives, who would get their revenge ten years later.

In 1981, the miners made their first move against Thatcherite attempts to destroy the coal industry. As details emerged of pit closures in February, unofficial strikes broke out across the country, and the unprepared Tory government was forced to back down. Scargill had come from the fringes to the mainstream, and in the presidential election of that year he won with a majority unprecedented in NUM history. One of the most powerful unions in the country was now under the control of a man of the far left.

Scargill’s Syndicalism

Scargill’s syndicalist tendencies are clear in an interview with the New Left Review, the lengthiest and most deliberate statement of his ideology he ever delivered, published nine years before the Great Strike.

Crucially, he comments that he had been tempted by the prospect of going to parliament, but that he had decided that the real power of the working class was in the trade unions. Fighting for control of the unions, and then using them to fight for the working class, was the most meaningful form of politics for the Left.

His hostility to the right-wing leadership of his own union is clear, and Scargill recounts in detail his battles with them, including their efforts to exclude him from meetings when he was a rank-and-file member. With greater democracy in the union, he suggested, politically astute militants who knew how to fight for their class would replace the Right.

Hostility to the Right was at the same time hostility to labourist corporatism. Scargill notes with contempt the former chairman of the National Coal Board’s remark that pay arrangements should be changed “for the benefit of the industry.” Scargill’s loyalty was not to the British coal industry, nor to the National Coal Board, but to the members of the NUM, and, more broadly, the working class.

In place of corporatism he was an unequivocal proponent of class war — and not in the rather British, gentlemanly way in which it had been conducted during the General Strike of ’26.

While for many in the postwar period the purpose of a trade union was negotiation, for Scargill the strike was central. It was an act of class war, even if many of the workers taking part did not initially perceive it as such. And if union leaders tried to prevent strike action, members should go ahead anyway, under the leadership of militants.

Industrial conflict was also, for Scargill, the crucible of class consciousness. Victories in strikes for pay and conditions, led by the far left within the union, would convince the workers both of their own power and of the relevance of radical ideas and strategy. After victory, continued struggle and disappointment, and the realization that wage increases alone could not relieve the misery inherent to capitalism, workers would gradually come to see that capitalism itself needed to be overthrown.

This, then, was an ideology of action, not a theory for the delight of intellectuals divorced from the material realities of working-class life. Scargill recounted that during the strike of 1972, around a thousand flying pickets were “billeted” at Essex University.

They wasted little time in informing their student sympathizers that they were in charge, and that they would have to form a common front, despite the factional infighting between left groups there. “We showed to the university students a degree of discipline and organization which they had probably read about in their Marxist books, but had not seen for themselves.”

For Scargill, the struggle itself would produce everything that mattered. It was not that ideas were irrelevant. It was simply that ideas could not motivate his members to strike, whereas complaints about pay and conditions could. The transformation of working-class consciousness would come through the strike, not from ivory-tower missionaries.

Here is one of the most interesting tensions in Scargill’s political thought; despite clearly being influenced by a syndicalist tradition in which union structures were often regarded with some suspicion, he believed firmly in the importance of leadership, discipline, and organization. He seems to have believed in a two-way relationship of loyalty. The union’s members ought to trust the leadership, and in return the leadership must act with the radicalism that Scargill felt was obviously in the best interests of the working class.

Fighting Thatcherism

In 1984, then, the stage was set for a confrontation between two exceptional individuals, representing two incompatible ideologies. Both Thatcher and Scargill had emerged out of, and hastened, the “crisis” of postwar social democracy. But while Scargill was a revolutionary with syndicalist tendencies, Thatcher was a dynamic force set on destroying the power of the British left.

Thatcherites had long been aware a strike was coming. After their embarrassing retreat in 1981, they began to prepare for further confrontations with the miners, moving tons of coal from pit heads to power stations to reduce the effectiveness of flying picketing.

And they knew, too, that a strike was necessary to their project. They needed the ideological victory that could be achieved by facing down a major trade union, especially one in the nationalized industries; a triumph, material and symbolic, would mean the end of trade unionism as it had hitherto existed.

Despite the years of planning, the opening shot was fired by accident. A regional official incorrectly told workers at Cortonwood Colliery that the pit was to close. The workers walked out. From there the strike spread like wildfire (apart from in Nottinghamshire, where many miners believed their jobs were safe). One of the greatest industrial conflicts in British history had begun.

Many miners will still say that the strike could have been won. Had Nottinghamshire’s scabs come out, had other unions and the TUC given more than sympathy, had the leaders of NACODS not betrayed the overwhelming decision of their members to strike, then they would have seized victory.

Each of these arguments has much truth in it, but it should not be forgotten that the Thatcherites understood how desperately they needed to win. They threw money, propaganda, and physical force into the conflict, and it is impossible to guess how much more could have been brought to bear against the miners had the battle intensified. In part because of the way in which it had been conceived by both sides, this was a battle between the NUM and the British state.

Such counterfactuals ultimately lead nowhere. What is important is that the battle needed to be fought, whether it could have been successful or not. If trade unionism was to be defeated, then it had to go out with a bang, not with a whimper. One of the people who understood this most was Scargill.

Yet this narrative also suggests that Scargill turned entirely away from “conventional” politics, which is far from true. It is unclear for how long he was involved with the CPGB. The Thatcher government knew that he had left the Communists because he found them too restrictive, but were convinced nonetheless that Communist influence was key to understanding their nemesis. In fact, it appears that the CPGB tried to moderate Scargill during the strike, and they joined the calls for a ballot fostered by the right-wing press and the government. Scargill was a force too dynamic for the CPGB to contain.

He remained an avowed Marxist, despite breaking with the Communists and becoming more closely involved with the Labour Party. Labour’s historic links with the trade union movement made it in many ways appealing to Scargill, and the existence of a vocal left in the party — typified in popular memory by the late Tony Benn — meant that he found many natural supporters there.

Indeed, in his 1975 interview with the New Left Review, despite his stress on politics in industry and the importance of strikes and trade union militancy, the Labour Party formed a key part of his political vision. He wanted Labour to be purged of its right-wing leaders, referring to them as “the Tories that are in the Labour Party,” specifically naming Reg Prentice, Shirley Williams, and Roy Jenkins. (Prentice would defect to the Tories in 1977 after conflict with the Left in his constituency, and Williams and Jenkins were founding members of the Social Democratic Party in 1981.)

With the Right neutralized, Scargill wanted restrictions on Labour membership lifted so that there could be “a broad alliance of the whole Left inside the Party.” He argued that the constitution should be altered so the party would be forced to accept the decisions of its conferences, which would allow “the trade union movement . . . to control that conference.”

Committed to a truly socialist platform, Labour would once again be the political wing of the labor movement, and would be able to implement real change: “This can take us so far along the road to a socialist Britain and then the social democratic party will have completely served its purpose. We would then need a totally new socialist party embracing the whole of the Left that could complete the job of taking Britain into a new socialist era.”

These views are firmly rooted in both the history of Labour’s domination of the British left and in the chaotic atmosphere of left politics in Britain in the seventies; indeed, all of what Scargill said here would go on to be the basic program of the Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist group that aimed to take control of the Labour Party, well into the eighties.

It seems less realistic today than it seemed at the time — trade union power in the party has now been curbed, and Clause IV of Labour’s constitution has been stripped of its original ideological content. For the time being at least, the contest over the ideological character of the Labour Party has been settled in favor of the Right.

In the face of Tony Blair’s rise to power, Scargill established the Socialist Labour Party in 1996; despite having told the New Left Review in 1975 that there was no point in splitting, that it was better to stay and fight for control, it now seemed so hopeless that it was worth attempting to start again. It is probably not a coincidence that the SLP shares its name with the ill-fated American syndicalist party.

The Legacy of Scargill

In a sense, Scargill’s position as president of the NUM is a symptom of the collapse of “corporate socialism” and the rise of the New Left. Such an understanding changes the story of postwar Britain by pointing out that the miners’s strike should be understood not only within the history of Thatcherism, but within a broader history of political and ideological change in the second half of the twentieth century.

Far from being a reactionary who stood for a system that appeared to most observers to be in crisis, Scargill must be seen as a radical opposed to both Thatcherism and to many of the assumptions that had guided postwar politics.

The strike, of course, failed. Scargill’s brand of socialism came to nothing. The trade union movement was crushed, and many of the gains made by “corporate socialism” have been, and continue to be, eroded. Despite being leader of the SLP, Scargill makes few public appearances or statements, speaks to few journalists, and leads a quiet life on the outskirts of the village where he was born.

Critics sneer at Scargill’s insistence after the strike that the miners’s victory was in their struggle. This is easily dismissed by cynics as false comfort, and as little consolation to communities completely destroyed by Thatcherization.

Yet Scargill’s belief in the inherent importance of the strike can be seen as far back as 1972; in other words, attention to Scargill’s political thought shows that the idea of victory in struggle was not something Scargill said following defeat in order to comfort his members or compensate for his failures, but was in fact central idea to his conception of trade union politics. In addition, revisiting Scargill’s socialism opens up new perspectives on the most important industrial dispute in British history.

In his interview with the New Left Review, Scargill repeatedly references the conclusions that historians will reach when they study the events of which he was a part. Convinced that he was right all along, and that history will eventually reassess him, he makes little effort today to correct the distorted image of his leadership put forward in popular culture, the right-wing media, and the history of the strike more generally.

Thirty years after the strike’s defeat, Scargill is still waiting for a fair treatment.